Last week you will have seen the news that Google has introduced a news feed experience to its app.
The GIF below shows what this experience looks like – the homepage will display news stories, videos and music based on a user’s search history.
Whilst I understand all the arguments for introducing a feed, I can’t help but get a sinking feeling. Clutter is about to descend on a service so iconic it should have Grade 1 listing.
Google’s feed experience in action (Image via Google)
Why has Google done it?
The cynics out there have immediately pointed out that Google fancies selling more advertising. The quickest way to do this, in the face of steadily rising mobile searches, is to monetise the previously blank space on the app homepage (and eventually on the website homepage, too).
Other more learned types have pointed at that the feed is the predominant way we consume information on mobile – whether it’s scrolling through Twitter or Facebook – and Google is merely getting with the times, providing information in a more timely fashion, up front.
Put simply, at the moment, we go to Google to find stuff, not to browse stuff. Google fancies ingratiating itself more with users by offering us some hot browsing action.
Ben Thompson, the analyst behind Stratechery said this back in 2014 when predicting ‘peak Google’:
..all of the things that make Google great at search and search advertising – the algorithm, the auction system, and machine learning – are skills that don’t really translate to the more touchy-feely qualities that make a social service or content site compelling.
If you read Thompson’s full article he highlights that whilst Google makes some $70bn+ every year in search advertising revenue, the total global advertising pie is more than $550bn and lots of this is made up of brand advertising like television spots.
Brands are attracted to social, where they can squeeze their awareness-raising videos between your friends’ social posts. Google wants a cut of this attention, whether it utimately decides to monetise it or not.
Facebook currently takes 23% of global mobile ad revenue, a bigger share than it takes of the overall digital ad revenue (16%), and Google knows this is because the Facebook Newsfeed is uniquely suited to mobile.
Why does Google’s move strike me as borderline heresy?
Firstly, I have a problem with curation, particularly the personalised kind. When it’s done well, it’s a wonderful thing, but when is it ever done well?
Show me a Twitter user ecstatic about the UX of ‘In case you missed it..’, a Facebook user who isn’t a little puzzled by some of the crap in their Newsfeed, or an Instagram user who cheered when their chronological timeline was dispensed with in favour of ‘the algorithm’.
Show me the person who cheers when they are retargeted with an advertorial for investment advice.
Perhaps more relevantly, show me the person who enjoys the search page in the Twitter app and regularly clicks on the Moments that are offered there, underneath the search bar.
However, the biggest problem I have is not with the mobile experience but the thought of potentially losing the beautiful simplicity of Google’s desktop homepage (the feed will roll out to desktop soon). This is a page that has not changed since 1996 because it is fundamentally the greatest user interaction on the web, sitting in front of possibly the most revolutionary product a company has ever made.
As I said in the introduction, if it were possible to give web designs listed status, Google’s homepage would be Grade 1.
This page is also a gateway for user intent, and not a place where users should be distracted in their moment of wanting to search for those trainers to buy, or that tradesman to call (against which ads are served).
On borrowed time
Will it work?
Okay, I’ve been a little negative so far, when Google has undoubted chops when it comes to serving me relevant content. How different can this feed experience be to what Google already does so well?
Well, some of the UX is actually pretty encouraging and gives me hope. I like the fact that users are able to ‘follow’ a subject from Google search (see the image below), subsequently seeing this content in their feed. I can certainly imagine doing so on mobile for my own football club, for example, or favourite players.
This idea of actively asking to see news makes more sense to me, though I shudder to think what might happen to my ad targeting when I follow such topics.
Google’s search app now allows users to follow topics which then appear in their homepage feed.
There’s also a ‘related stories’ carousel underneath certain articles (see the shot below) which Shashi Thakur, a VP of engineering, says Google will use to promote different viewpoints about the news.
In theory this balanced news feed sounds very promising and no doubt Google could pull it off – but, it ignores the fact that we genuinely gravitate towards news sources we trust, or to viewpoints we already share. How many of these carousel articles will I tut at and scroll right past?
Interestingly, there seems to be a mixed verdict so far. Writing for The Verge, Casey Newton doesn’t seem impressed. He writes:
“Scroll far enough and you’ll get a basic, ambient sense of the day’s news. But few of the items I saw compelled me to read the article. Part of what makes Facebook and Twitter’s feeds compelling is the social endorsement that links there carry.”
But, Slate’s Will Oremus is much more positive and even surprised by the creepiness of the feed’s content:
“Google’s recommendations for me so far have homed in directly on my core search interests…Colleagues tell me they’ve also been impressed, and in some cases a little creeped out, by its suggestions. Copy editor Dawnthea Price, a gamer in her spare time, told me her feed served her posts on Final Fantasy 15, Pokémon Go Legendary, and a real-estate listing for a house in her neighborhood (!).”
Casey Newton also remarks that ”The most surprising thing about the Google feed, at least at launch, is how little video it contains.”
This is one factor that makes me more likely to use the feature, without the danger of autoplay. In fact, YouTube videos do not play at all in feed, even if you click on them – this takes you out of app. One has to imagine this will change over time.
Ultimately, the success of the news feed in the Google app is going to rely on how smart and nuanced the content is that Google delivers there. Whilst I can foresee it being a success on mobile, I still can’t see why Google would distract users on desktop from their shopping intent (which makes AdWords so successful).